Chris Penk

First published by The BFD 22th June 2020


The BFD is serialising National MP Chris Penk’s book Flattening the Country by publishing an extract every day.

What becomes of the “non-essential”?

A government whose chief virtue is PR can normally be relied on to have “good optics”, as they say in spinning circles.  The current crowd is rarely good at much else.

But the optics of describing huge numbers of Kiwis’ work as “non-essential” were terrible.  Not a good look, as they used to say.

For one thing, every job is important to the person who’s doing it.  To that person, it’s certainly essential.

For another thing, every job that a person does has value in the eyes of other people too.  The job wouldn’t exist, otherwise.  That’s because in any mostly market economy (pretty much anything other than communism, basically), a job exists because someone, somewhere wants it to exist.  The piper plays the tune because they’ve been paid to do so.

It was insulting that the Prime Minister officially designated the Easter Bunny an essential worker while tens of thousands of honest toilers in the real world were effectively told by her government, “don’t come Monday”, or indeed any other day.  I can’t imagine that the unwanted ones would have found much comfort in the thought of an elusive creature bouncing around with treats bought by someone else but now being thrown around freely in a fictional world.  I’m talking about the Easter Bunny, not the Prime Minister, by the way.

These basic “essential” truths were refuted by the rule-writers, however.  Interestingly, many official missives tried to avoid accountability on the part of the government by using the passive voice:

Butchers, bakeries and similar small-scale food retailers are considered non-essential, as similar products are readily available in supermarkets.

They are considered non-essential?  Really?  By whom, pray tell?

What the official statement should have said was that the government considers them non-essential.  But don’t worry, we all knew what they meant.

To a large extent, the government’s arrogant attitude during the coronavirus crisis reflected the usual inclinations of the individuals within it.  They were egotistical enough to drink Kool-Aid of their own distilling and not even know that they were doing so:

What is most damaging is the public, the media and ministers believe government intervention saved us from COVID-19. Ministers believe their ‘success’ is a mandate for more government interventions. It is said political parties start to die when they swallow their own propaganda.

Even more damning than the government’s hubris was its stubbornness.  The failure of the Ardern administration to acknowledge that it had made dumb decisions (understandably, to a point, given the haste of the initial lockdown) was to have serious consequences.

As my colleague Paul Goldsmith noted at the time:

Confusion and gross unfairness between businesses may have been forgiven as we raced headlong into lockdown at the start of the crisis, but it won’t be forgiven as we come out.

And as another colleague, Todd McClay, noted in early April, in a press release titled “More businesses must be able to operate safely”:

The Government must be more agile when it comes to allowing businesses to keep operating during the lockdown if they can prove they can do so safely […]

To date the decision making has been too arbitrary and there are too many inconsistencies. For instance, allowing dairies to open but not local butchers or greengrocers, agriculture to continue but not forestry, cigarettes to be manufactured but community newspapers cannot be printed.  

If a business proves it can operate safely, provide contactless selling and ensure physical distancing then they should be able to operate. 

It seems wrong that New Zealanders can order goods from overseas but can’t order the same thing locally. The thousands of small home businesses in particular that meet the Covid-19 health [and] safety guidelines should be allowed to recommence activity.

I’m proud to recall that National was prepared to back butchers and other small, independent, local retailers in the face of the government’s arrogant obstinacy.

The closest that ministers came to conceding the obvious truth of the matter was in its decision to allow some processing of pork.  It was a decision made on the basis of animal welfare.  Fair enough too but many in the meat industry must have wondered whether any decision maker was interested in human welfare.

The decision to allow some pork production lent itself to obvious wry observations – for example, regarding the government’s willingness to bend the truth – but I’ll resist those opportunities in favour of a more serious point.

Seemingly the processing of pork was not going to pose as great a risk of spreading covid-19 as the equivalent processes for beef, lamb and so on.  It made no sense.

It also made no sense for pork – and all other products, for that matter – to be stocked only in supermarkets and not in more modest outlets.

Here are a couple of highlights from one of the most laughably absurd public sector press releases that you’ll ever read.  Ladies and gentlemen, “Butchers now allowed to process pork”:

Changes have been made to allow butchers to process pork, only for supply to supermarkets or other processors or retailers that are open, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has announced. […]

Butchers are an essential part of the supply chain in New Zealand for pork. At present, there is not enough capacity to hold surplus pigs on farms or pig carcasses in processing facilities, which could create an animal welfare issue. We need them to operating (sic) to ensure that pigs can continue to be processed and are not backing up on farms leading to animal welfare issues.

As for greengrocers, the produce sector was asking for a common sense change, along with those of us going into bat for them from the outside:

Horticulture New Zealand, on behalf of the industry, is continuing its dialogue with the Government on the importance of independent fruit and vegetable retailers being able to reopen, and has made a written submission.

Our position is that with no independent retailers open, there is no price competition with the supermarkets.  Also, that the supermarkets have no reason to increase price unless this is based on production and distribution cost increases.

Naturally, the government ignored all the very reasonable representations made in this regard.  By forcing everyone to stream to the same limited number of shops, they ensured greater density and therefore less “physical distancing” in the aisles.

Directing a duopoly also had a predictable effect on prices.  I say “predictable” because it was an outcome obvious to everyone except the Beehive bumblers.

I don’t suppose we should have been surprised that the Prime Minister looked elsewhere than in the mirror for the anti-competitive culprit:

Ardern announced a new website on Monday for Kiwis to report incidents of “price gouging” by supermarkets, who now lacked competition during the shutdown.

It’s exactly the same trick Ardern had pulled a couple of years ago when petrol prices increased following her introduction of new petrol taxes.  The government excluded the effect of petrol taxation from an inquiry that it ordered the Commerce Commission to undertake into the reasons for rising petrol prices.  You wouldn’t read about it, as the saying goes, except perhaps on your credit card statement.

It was not only businesses but the lifestyles of Kiwis more generally that were beaten into submission by the bureaucracy.  The legal firearms community in this country knows better than most how this government is prepared to signal its virtue to little other effect than a feel-good factor.

As Nicole McKee from the COLFO advocacy group explained in an email to members entitled “A personal note about the continued ban on hunting”:

I’ve spent the last 24 hours extremely disappointed with the news that the Government is continuing the ban on hunting under Alert Level 3. Based on the anger I’ve seen in my emails and on social media, I’m not alone.

I could understand the ban under Alert Level 4 […]. I am struggling however to understand the ban under Alert Level 3 when other activities with higher injury rates than hunting can go ahead.”

“Mountain biking, for example, results in far more injuries than hunting – but I guess that’s the hobby for the politicians and bureaucrats who have embraced making decisions for us.

Examples of such arbitrary authority abound (and no doubt you’ve been recalling a few as you read) but we can wrap up with a couple of examples as highlighted amusingly by Sir Bob Jones:

LOCATION – You must lockdown in your home but not a holiday home.  Why on earth does it make any difference?  It certainly does for the occupants as a change helps tolerating it.  Instead the police inspected cars over Easter, turning back those with suitcases.

His point about the potential mental health cost – at no gain on the physical health side of the ledger – was actually a very serious one.  And similarly:

DRIVING – You must only drive for an approved purpose, i.e. food or pharmacy purchasing.  What nonsense!  Thus slowly going mad, confined in a small house, families were denied the relief, while maintaining their bubbles, of an outing in a car.

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What Becomes of the ‘Non-essential’?
Chris Penk

Chris Penk

Chris Penk is the MP for the Kaipara ki Mahurangi electorate (previously Helensville), having entered Parliament following the 2017 retirement of John Key in that seat. Prior to Parliamentary life,...